Alternative weeklies like The Stranger in Seattle and other local papers across the country have taken a big hit as the coronavirus halts the economy.
Alternative weeklies like The Stranger in Seattle and other local papers across the country have taken a big hit as the coronavirus halts the economy. [Jason Redmond | Reuters]

Pandemic Threatens Local Papers Even As Readers Devour Their Coverage

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The email came in from the editor of a small newspaper in Seaside, Calif. And she wasn’t the bearer of good news.

Instead, she offered a small data point in a larger and troubling dynamic: The pandemic threatening the nation’s public health is swiftly jeopardizing the local journalism that keeps its citizens informed about what’s happening in their own communities.

“Our paper, an independent weekly, very sadly laid off one-third of our staff,” Sara Rubin, who runs the newsroom for the Monterey County Weekly, wrote recently in an email to me.

“We are the paper of record in our community, and if no one else reports on the details of our shelter-in-place order, etc, it truly feels like a dark place. Plus, I had to see people who really feel like family go and it’s heartbreaking,” Rubin added.

The snap recession caused by the efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic have laid bare the fragility of news organizations that were skating at the precipice of financial disaster even before this year. Alternative publications, especially those in the Northwest, were hit early. And Rubin says her publication was relatively robust compared with many of its counterparts.

“I think there’s something different about what’s happening right now,” Mi-Ai Parrish, the former president and publisher of The Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, says in an interview. “They’re all covering COVID. But everybody’s covering it. And nobody’s being paid for it. There are no advertisements.”

Interest in news is high. An internal Facebook report obtained by The New York Times showed that more than half the articles being consumed on the social platform in the U.S. focused on the coronavirus. Ratings for television news have surged.

Local news websites are also seeing significant traffic. Yet that doesn’t matter if people are pulling print ads. And BuzzFeed reports that some digital advertisers are also withdrawing their ads because they don’t want the ads to run next to coverage of the pandemic.

Before the pandemic and the apparent recession — with record unemployment filings — newspapers were already struggling. Few local and regional papers had succeeded in building significant digital subscriptions to replace sagging print subscription revenues. Even when online readerships are high, digital ads usually yield relatively meager returns.

And thanks to coronavirus, advertising is evaporating as people are staying home, and many mainstays of local communities are closing their doors to customers. Parrish notes that 40% of American dailies are owned by major investment funds that have already embarked on waves of cuts to slice costs.

“It’s hard to see the path forward,” Parrish says.

A small chain of weeklies in Sacramento, Calif.; Chico, Calif.; and Reno, Nev., were shuttered by their owner. In recent days, The Stranger in Seattle laid off 18 people and suspended its print edition. It noted that 90% of its revenue comes from advertising about events at which people gather — including concerts, performances, fine dining experiences — all of which have been canceled. The Portland Mercury also stopped printing and laid off staff.

All are operating in regions deeply affected by early waves of coronavirus.

Yet such cuts are not only taking place in the Northwest. The Waterbury, Vt., Record is ceasing publication. The Riverfront Times in St. Louis has stopped its print edition. After layoffs, only two journalists remain on payroll. The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, Louisiana’s largest news organization, has furloughed many of its sports and entertainment reporters for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. BuzzFeed has ordered up temporary pay cuts for the majority of its staff.

Rubin, the editor based in Seaside, Calif., said the effects of the pandemic were like a tidal wave.

“The shutdowns of businesses associated with coronavirus had a really instantaneous effect,” Rubin says in an interview. It just about killed the Monterey County Weekly‘s advertising. She estimated it also shut down about two-thirds of the stores and other sites where the publication was distributed.

David Chavern, the president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, an industry trade group, says weeklies are just the most vulnerable and most obvious publications to suffer. He says he expects to see it spread to more conventional news organizations, like daily newspapers.

The new economic rescue package passed by Congress may help some smaller papers that aren’t part of bigger corporate chains. But Chavern says that’s hardly a solution.

“We have to solve for this immediate COVID-19 ad crisis and get through that,” he says. “But then we’re going to have to come back to the problem that our business model wasn’t great before COVID-19. So it’s not gonna be great after and we’ve got to survive to then address these long-term problems.”

When bad news breaks, Chavern says, “people care about local journalism. And do you want this for this crisis, but also for the next one? Then we’re going to have to look at this digital ecosystem.” He says Google and Facebook must step forward to figure out how to pay publishers for the notices they circulate on the social media platforms — or those sources of news and information will wither and die.

Facebook has just announced an initiative to distribute $1 million to local news organizations across the country in concert with the Philadelphia-based Lenfest Institute. Grants will be given in $5,000 chunks to help smaller newsrooms keep reporting about the coronavirus even as that crisis threatens their finances. It is the latest in a series of philanthropic endeavors and small-to-medium partnerships that send some money to local news outlets.

“A million dollars from Facebook? Gimme a break,” Parrish says. “I think a million dollars is a lot of money personally, but a million dollars to them? It’s nothing. It’s a drop in the bucket. And it’s not enough to support anything of substance.”

A Facebook spokeswoman says the company is considering additional measures.

As for that Facebook traffic in local news items, most of those news sources are not significantly compensated by Facebook for distributing their stories — even as the audiences for their work have spiked to great heights.

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